Losing my daughter, Syndee, was life’s way of smacking me across the head and reminding me just how miraculous life, and childbirth in particular, truly are. As terrified as I was, I wanted to have another baby immediately. I was so nervous, in fact, I held my breath the entire time I was pregnant with Jake; which is kind of ironic since I regularly remind people to ‘just breathe’. The day I brought him home from the hospital, I sat on the kitchen floor and cried for hours, and not just weeping, deep animalistic crying that erupted like a volcano. I couldn’t have stopped it from coming out if I tried.
Two years later, Jonah was born, and by that time some of my fears began to fade. I was grateful for my two sons and I started to feel as if everything worked out just as it was meant to be; until our pediatrician discovered that Jonah had a heart murmur. My fears came rushing back with immense force. “I cannot lose another child!” “I could never handle that kind of pain again!” Thoughts fiercely bounced around in my head.
We went to see a pediatric cardiologist and they revealed that Jonah had what is referred to as a subaortic stenosis; an obstruction or narrowing at the outlet of the lower left chamber of the heart, just below the aortic valve. My fears were raging by this point!
Jonah required regular visits to the cardiologist to monitor the progression. Every appointment was filled with fear and anxiety because we knew one day he would indeed need surgery. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. At the end of each appointment, the doctor advised us to come back the following year, and there was a collective sigh as we walked out of the hospital exhausted from all the stress.
Right around Jonah’s 11th birthday he appeared to be slowing down. This was a kid who played at 120% at all times and didn’t stop playing just because he was out of breath. There was a glaring difference we could see and he could feel. I’ll never forget the day he told me he wasn’t feeling right and that everything felt harder; breathing, running, playing. My heart sank. We both knew what that meant.
The cardiologist confirmed our suspicions; it was time for the surgery. Imagine having to look in your child’s eyes as the doctor is telling him that he is going to have open heart surgery – it was gut-wrenching! If there was anything I could have done to trade places with Jonah, I would have done it.
A few days prior to the surgery, the hospital staff took Jonah on a tour of the hospital. He met the doctors and nurses who would be taking care of him, got a chance to see where he’d be staying and discovered the all-you-can-eat, on-demand menu and the video collection. And then, the doctors asked him if he had any questions about the surgery. My first reaction was “No, don’t tell him anymore, you’ll freak him out!” But he wanted to know details, and as it turned out, it helped him to feel like part of the team that was making the decisions. It gave him a sense of control which apparently put him at ease to some extent. Of course, he almost passed out when they drew blood that day, and to this day he breaks out in a cold sweat and gets woozy from a prick on the finger. Go figure.
The night before the surgery I obsessed over the possible scenarios of how the morning might play out. I envisioned Jonah crying hysterically, clinging to the headboard with all his might, begging me not to make him go. I envisioned throwing him over my shoulder like a cave-woman and dragging him to the car. My imagination was running wild. In reality, he woke up the morning of his surgery, got dressed and walked to the car without a peep. He faced his fears head on! I was in awe as I watched him, and in watching him I gained the strength I needed to be the strong mom he needed me to be. It was a beautiful thing!
Jonah was in the hospital for five days and out of school for a month. Within four days of being home he refused to take any more pain medication. Within two weeks he was negotiating with me to let him “gently” throw the football around with his brother, and if you knew my boys, you would know there is no such speed as “gentle”. He was, in the truest sense, living in the moment. No pain; no pain medication. I feel like playing ball; let’s play ball. He wasn’t thinking about the past or the future. Kids are the best teachers!
This was a life changing moment for Jonah, one that would show him how strong he was and what he had the ability to overcome. It taught him that life can get a little crazy, but that nothing lasts forever. To this day, he walks through life in the moment with little fear; maybe because he’s already faced his worst fear.
As a mom, I am incredibly proud having seen my son go through this intense experience with such grace and fearlessness. He taught me so much. Two years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and one of my biggest fears was telling my kids. We had been through a lot and the thought of putting more on their young plates was excruciating. But, because I saw the strength it gave Jonah to know the truth during his surgery, I knew the best thing was to be honest and up front with them.
When I told Jonah, he said, “Mom, I’m not worried, my surgery was way worse than yours.” He was right, and from that moment on, I felt as though I could handle anything. If my 11-year-old could handle open-heart surgery, I could handle this. Watching him face his fears head on gave me the strength to face mine.